The New Derrida, Lecture 2: The Animal

The New Derrida, Lecture 2

The Animal


Derrida, The Animal that Therefore I am, pp. 1-52. (Stanford UP, 2008)

Nicole Anderson: “deconstruction and Ethics: “An (ir)responsibility,” in Derrida: Key Concepts.


Judith Still, Derrida and Other Animals: The Boundaries of the Human (Edinburgh University Press, 2015)

SEP, “Emmanuel Levinas”

Matthew Calarco, Zoographies: The Question of the Animal from Heidegger to Derrida (Columbia UP, 2008)

Who am I? In the French, the question is Qui suis-je? Who is this “I” that speaks to you and of itself, saying “I” with such ease. For Descartes and Heidegger this experience of the “I” is never questioned: “I think therefore I am,” a phrase to which we’ll return often tonight, is the most famous and perhaps economic of proofs in the history of philosophy. For Heidegger, each Dasein, each existent, must say “I” because the one who questions after the meaning of the Being of beings—first and foremost in Being and Time, the being of that entity who is the questioner, namely Dasein—for the very reason that it is “in each case mine (je meines).” This is the most concrete and primordial of experiences: the least we could say: I am. You are. But of course who we are arrives from an inheritance because of each of us has survived and lived on beyond the dead before us, and whom we follow: we say “I am” in a language whose inheritance and grammar we cannot refuse. Whom do I follow? The question in French is again Qui suis-je? For readers of Levinas, we know that the I is always hostage to another, to one who is “greater and older than I am,” as he puts it. The Other precedes me, holds me hostage, such that we begin to feel trembling the “me” we take to be the most common, the first and last, of experiences of what we dub the human. The child differentiates itself from its mother and thus can enter the structural, linguistic order, to enter experience proper, one it is able to say without saying, “I am” and perhaps even “you are” for its parents. Who am I? Whom do I follow? In our last moments, Heidegger argues, no one can die for for us. Death—the possibility of our impossibility, as he calls it—is my own. Thus from the beginning to the end, that which names itself I, Ich, je, and so on—a name it tells itself is most itself even if it’s not a name, but an indexical that names us all that say it and repeat or follow it—and says I am or I am here, begins and returns to this most primordial of experience, the experience of experience that is auto-affection, even as this repetition of each of us, each that is mine, repeating “I am” points to a heteroaffection, the one to whom “I am” is a response, or testified to by the very repetition from in my own supposed voice of what was not given firstly in my own voice, “I am.”

Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am and all of his writings, from beginning to end, are known for contesting that what I am is simply or merely human, and it is this supposed “anti-humanism” that brings out the beast in his critics, spitting their venom like snakes and attempting to scare away those who would approach his work. The critics find their animality at precisely the moment that they want to hold to some value of the human beyond the animal: reason and language and thus the ability to respond and have responsibility. What we will follow here is one particular animal as he follows a certain deconstruction of the human/animal distinction in The Animal that Therefore I am as well as in his last two lectures courses, The Beast and the Sovereign. But we must return, always, to that most concrete, supposedly, of questions: who am I? Whom do I follow? From Plato through Descartes through Kant through Heidegger, man (and I will keep this nomenclature for now, for reasons that will become clear) is that being that names the animal as such. When the animal that therefore I am asks who am I?, the answer invariably starts from the proposition that I am not one of those many billions of entities that we call, we follow and hunt down, as “the animal.” This is where we begin our auto-biographies, which always have in the background that we follow less from what we dub the animal, though evolution tells us otherwise, than as but one human among others who rose above animality when history began. History, then, is the story the human tells of its rise, of its becoming erect and standing, and thus able to survey over those we name, one by one in different ways, the animal. We name it thus—this is the story from Genesis, a power given to Adam by God, but it’s an event that occurs every moment during which we dub ourselves human—and thus erect the human as sovereign.

I am thus a “who” rising above the “what”-ness of animality, and no doubt we spend our days trying to sniff out and cover over the reek of that animality that therefore I am; we don’t wish to smell like a beast. Let us enumerate the ways in which Derrida will discuss in The Animal that therefore I am—a lecture first given at Cerisy, France, in 1997—and his later lectures courses how and where we make this cut between the human and the animal, which in turn allows for all the cuts we make into the animal while disavowing that “it” (not a he or a she) suffers. At each turn let us keep in mind that each of these are symptomatic of a fundamental disavowal in the history of Western philosophy—indeed it makes any writing of “history” itself possible in the first place—and this disavowal is undeniable, a term that will in the coming weeks gain in import. As Derrida puts it in The Animal that therefore I am:

[T]his question of the animal is not just interesting and serious in its own right. It also provides us with an indespensable intertwining thread for reading philosophers and for gaining access to a sort of secret “architectonics” in the construction—and therefore deconstruction—of a discursive apparatus, a coherence, if not a system. One understands a philosophy only by heeding closely what he [or she] means to demonstrate, and in reality fails to demonstrate, concerning the limit between human and animal.

This is where deconstruction begins: what does this animal that is human tell itself about what or who it is such that it can say “I am…” human? What does it have to sacrifice in intellectual rigor in order to defend the structures that surround all manner of sacrificial logic, which will extend, as we will see in the weeks ahead, to the death penalty and its scaffolds, but also to all manner of violent deaths in war or in simply the biopolitical choice of health for some populations, but not for others? The places of these cuts between the human and the animal are innumerable and thus uncountable, even as they are, in the end, unaccountable:

  1. The human is that which can be naked or nude: the animal may be without clothing, but it does not know that it is without clothing, doesn’t think to dress or cover its sex, and thus can’t can’t state the naked truth that “I am.”
  2. The animal has no shame and it’s not even ashamed of it. It has no shame over its shame, as the animal that therefore I am might find in a therapy session when I am made to feel guilty over the guilt that I feel, or that another animal that we’ll follow finds in the face of his cat, in the face of that which is said to be without a face, in the shower scene that opens The Animal that therefore I am.
  3. The animal therefore cannot be nakedly or cruelly evil. As in Genesis—we think we live in such as secular age, but Derrida’s texts are convincing on just how much, concerning the animal and so much else, we still derive from the Islamo-Judeo-Christian tradition—the animal is before good and evil, even as it invariably is the motif or metonymy for evil. It is before or beyond innocence and thus cannot be moral or immoral.
  4. The animal is without reason and this is why animality is the metonymy for being abjectly stupid (Derrida hence relies on the French bêtise, meaning stupid and animal, throughout his texts on animality).
  5. The animal without access to language and the logos, and thus to history and its vicissitudes. It cannot literally say “I am” and thus cannot cannot account for itself, cannot give an autobiography, let alone give an autobiography of its species that we call history. While every living creature is said to move spontaneously, automatically, and from Aristotle forward, is said to “feel itself” and hence “to relate to itself,” that is, to have “autoaffection or automotion…the self of that relation to the self,” what is “in dispute…is the power to make reference to the self in deictic or autodeictic terms, the capability at least virtually to turn a finger toward oneself in order to say ‘this is I.’” This is the minimum of thought: the “I think” that accompanies thought and its representations: the animal perhaps has the latter, but is always denied the former. And it is the minimum for speaking properly:

Men would be first and foremost those living creatures who have themselves the word that enables them to speak of the animal with a single voice and to designate as the single being [qua a specimen of the animal] and to designate it as the single being that remains without a response, without a word with which to respond.

This is why Derrida will play on the homonym in French of the portmanteau animot and animaux, since “animal is a word that men have given themselves the right to give.”

6. The animal does not respond; it reacts. We thus owe it no ethics: it is a machine and if we put questions to it, we would receive only repetitious, verbal seeming barks or other noises. As if, given the machine we call language and its iterability, and given any logic of the unconscious, we could discern with any credibility the difference between our responses and reactions. All questions of responsibility come down to this distinction, and thus any attempt to deconstruct it, to be naked about the cruel inability to give “purity” and “rigor” to the cut between one and the other, opens us onto all questions of the political and the ethical, the juridical and the moral. How to take the measure of when one is merely reacting, when one is behaving as the animal that therefore I am, from when one is responding and thus when one is responsible for what one does? One would have to be criminally stupid not to see the point. No doubt this “risks…casting doubt on all responsibility, all ethics, every decision, etc.”  Let me quote Derrida at length on this point, since what he writes is central for how we respond or react to his work:

Casting doubt on responsibility, on decision, on one’s own being-ethical seems to me to be…the unrescindable essence of ethics, decision and responsibility. All firm knowledge, certainty, and assurance on this subject would suffice, precisely, to confirm the very thing thing one wishes to disavow, namely, the reactionality of the response.

That is, if such a knowledge were certain and assured, it would be programmable and machinic, that is, reactive. Rather, Derrida writes,

[I]t is a matter…of taking that difference [between reaction and response] into account within the within the whole differentiated field of experience and of a world of life forms, and of doing that without reducing this differentiated and multiple difference, in a conversely massive and homogenizing manner, to one between the human subject … and the nonsubject that is the animal in general…the nonsubject that is subjected to the human subject….It would therefore be a matter of reinscribing this différance between reaction and response, and hence this historicity of ethical, juridical, or political responsibility, within another thinking of life, of the living, within another relation of the living to their ipseity [explain], to their autos, to their own autokinesis and reactional automaticity.

  1. The animal is capable of perishing (verenden) but not dying (sterben), as Heidegger puts puts it in Being and Time. That is, since it has no relation to its death as such—as if one could ever have a relation to death as such—the animals merely goes away, stops working, if one will, but does not truly die in full human sense. Thus while Dasein is always already dying, always already in a relation to its being-towards-death and its own mortality, the animal never dies even as it is not immortal. But neither is it mortal either, since to be so would be to have a relation to one’s own mortality and finitude.
  2. To Bentham’s famous question, can they suffer, philosophical history has been all but silent, since to admit as much would be to admit more than auto-motility and autoaffection in the animal; only the human experiences pain, which is the consciousness of what one suffers or undergoes. We deny it even as Derrida notes it’s undeniable.
  3. Since the animal lacks consciousness, it also lacks an unconscious. There can be no psychoanalysis of the animal, even the animal que donc je suis. The animal is also that which is unaware of this lack of a lack; it fulfills needs but does not desire, and hence we can with good conscience relieve them of what shakes any ability in the human to have a good conscience, namely the unconscious, since as Kant recognized, one never knows just why one follows the most ethical of maxims, since one does not know if there is some “secret inclination hiding” behind reason.
  4. The animal, as in Lacan, cannot lie: it would need to be conscious of the truth to feign otherwise. Even when it covers its tracks to throw off those that follow and are after it, like the animal that therefore I am, the animal can feign nothing; it always is in the truth even if it doesn’t know it. Even though the whole logic of the unconscious—Lacanian or Freudian or even Kantian—belies this about lying, given that any “truth” could be a symptom or phantasm, a “lie” one tells oneself, if there can be such a thing, without even knowing it.
  5. The animal has no face, in the Levinasian sense: it is not an Other. Even as the Other is unknowable, unable to be captured within a concept, which would relegate it in Levinas, to the level of the Same, this alterity must always already be known as human.
  6. The human is that being that is cruel, perhaps first and foremost, Derrida suggests, since this cruelty arrives through this supposition of a sovereignty of the human over the supposed animal. That is, the human can know, can be transparent or naked to itself, about its aims when it does violence. It cannot commit crimes, though there is a tasty history of animal courts in the Middle Ages, when pigs, dogs, and such were subject to the law and thus expected to be lawful subjects, although in fact much of the lore around these animal trials is phantasmatic and appears to have been something of a parodic joke. As one article puts it:

In an age where animals were often roaming the streets and children were found in the fields, accidents were pretty common. [A scholar on the topic] describes one, fairly typical case in 1379 in which two herds of swine were feeding together when a trio of pigs became agitated, and charged the swinemaster’s son, who died from his injuries. All of the pigs from both herds were tried, and “after due process of law, were condemned to death.” Somewhat luckily, all but the three instigating pigs were implicated as accomplices, and later pardoned….Beastiality was also an occasional accusation that led to the trial of an animal, although this charge was actually known to go in the animal’s favor. “Both the human and the animal might be put to death, but in some cases, they seem to have managed to say that it wasn’t the animal’s fault, that the animal didn’t consent,” [the scholar] says, “So the animal wasn’t punished.” …Still other animals were imprisoned right along with human criminals. In this case, as no one honestly believed the animal was solemnly considering its actions, the owner was charged for the animal’s board as a form of second-hand punishment.

Can that which does not die be condemned to death? Can it suffer the death penalty? How could one judge if or if not an animal consented? What would it say and in what language? This should not, Derrida argues—yes, he makes arguments and is not merely a reader of texts, as I went to lengths to show last week—lead us the there is a “continuity” between the human and the animal, or better, “between what calls itself man and he calls the animal.” There is no doubting that what weighs on us is precisely the inheritance of this difference and its continuing performative effects when we say “the animal.”

Bringing this to a close so that we can dive into the texts, let’s highlight Derrida’s “three-sided thesis”—again, a position, one for which he spends an entire set of lectures arguing and defending while also providing readings that show a disavowal in the philosophical tradition (he will read Descartes, Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Levinas) of this three-sided thesis: (1) the rupture between the human and the animal is not a clean cut (even l’animal que donc je suis needs this rupture every time it cuts into the animal), that is, “a unilinear and indivisible line having two edges.” (2) This “multiple and heterogeneous border of this abyssal rupture has a history.” Indeed this history is possible—history, he argues, as such is possible—only on the basis of this rupture. And this history, he argues, enters an entirely different phase in the eighteenth century when that which dubs itself man begins a certain technologization of the animal, a certain “production” of it that occurs precisely at the time, by coincidence or not, when putting to death itself—of men, that is—is made more virtual or specular, though no less visible. Thus we move from the public tortures to the guillotine to all manner of ways we make less painful and sufferable for the animal that therefore I am the death of those condemned. All to disavow its continued bestial monstrosity. In any event, in an argument that tracks to something like Heidegger’s in “The Question concerning Technology,” [explain] this change is recent and cataclysmic and is one for “which we have no scale.” (3) there is no “animal” as such, but rather “a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead, relations of organization or lack of organization among realms that are more and more difficult to dissociate by means of the figures of the organic and inorganic.” This would thus call into question such notions as species and genus, since one cannot come upon the other of the animals that we are following and not recognize their specificity and inability to “objectify” these “intertwined and abyssal” differences. Such is the thesis to which today and next week we must respond, or rather to which we tells ourselves we respond, even if we just merely react somamnulantly, as some in these classes are wont to do. Who am I? Whom do I follow? Qui suis-je? The question is comes before us and addresses us, and is one that is addressed to me from me. Am I an animal or not? A question that seems an accusation—am I a beast? What have I done?—but is central to the tasks of deconstruction and those that therefore follow it.